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Paris: The surface of the moon is filled with much larger quantities of water than expected, in the form of ice distributed on many small craters, which may constitute a potential resource from which future space missions can benefit, according to two studies published their results Monday.
The moon was always believed to be a dry celestial body, until researchers in 2008 discovered water molecules inside magma that were brought by astronauts during the Apollo missions.
This water is found in the form of water ice at the bottom of large craters that are always in the shade, near the polar regions of the moon where temperatures are extremely low.
A study published in the journal Nature Astronomy revealed the existence of many tiny craters that hoard water ice at its bottom, called “cold traps.”
“Imagine yourself on the moon, near one of its polar regions. You will see countless small shadows on the surface, most of them smaller than a coin. Each of them will be very cold enough to house the ice,” said Paul Hine of the Department of Astrophysics at the University of Colorado. .
And his team used data from two tools from the “LRO” Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter of the US Space Agency (NASA). By combining these measurements with 3D models, they were able to reproduce the size and distribution of shadows, at smaller scales.
The temperatures are the same as in the large craters: around 160 degrees Celsius below zero. But the number is much greater, “there are tens of billions of them, compared to a few hundreds of them,” according to Paul Hine.
When added to the previously monitored areas, the total area of water on the moon reaches 40,000 square kilometers, 60% of which is in the Antarctic, “indicating that water is spread over the moon more than was previously thought,” according to this researcher and author Principal of the study, told AFP.
Another study, also published in the journal Nature Astronomy, provides chemical evidence that molecular water does indeed exist.
The Stratospheric Observatory of Astronomy Infrared (SOFIA) Airborne Telescope provided researchers with new data thanks to observing the moon at a more accurate wavelength than before, at 6 microns instead of 3.
For the first time, researchers have succeeded in clearly distinguishing between a water molecule (two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen) and another chemical compound mixed with it is hydroxyl (one part hydrogen and one part oxygen).
The lead author of the study Casey Honeyball, a researcher at the Hawaiian Institute of Geophysics and Planets, said that the new study was able to “unambiguously” show the spectral signature of molecular water in a sunlit area.
“If we find abundant quantities of water in certain locations, we may use it as a source for human exploration,” Honeypal, who is also pursuing postdoctoral studies at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told AFP.
Honipal also explained in a press conference organized by “NASA” that the concentration of water that the researchers found “is approximately equivalent to a 350-milliliter water bottle within a cubic meter of the volume of lunar soil.”
And she stressed that these are not “pools of water”, but rather scattered particles that do not form ice or liquid water.
But where does this water come from? This could be caused by the fall of asteroids that collided with the moon billions of years ago, and are thought to be the same source of water on Earth.
And Francis Rocard, a solar system specialist at the National Center for Space Studies in France, said that the water molecules that were thrown during the fall of these objects probably fell to the bottom of these craters, where they remained “trapped forever” by the cold.
In the event that extraction technologies are developed, this would provide a potential resource for future space missions, especially the “Lunar Gateway” (Moon Gate), which is the future mini-station that will be set up in the moon’s orbit.
This is of particular importance to NASA, which is working to launch a manned mission to the Moon in 2024.
For future manned missions to Mars, for example, one can envision “take off from Earth and then stop at the Lunar Gateway Station,” which will act as a “fuel station”, through which probes will be sent on the surface of the moon to collect water, thus providing the crew with fuel on a trip to Mars According to Frances Rocard, who was not involved in the studies.
The French astrophysicist said, “This would reduce the cost of the program because it is cheaper than bringing water from the surface of the Earth,” noting that the trip to Mars takes six months.